Hemlock's Diary
6-12 Apr, 2008
Sun, 6 Apr
The Mid-Levels Escalator suffers human gridlock as people enjoying their long weekend interrupt their trip up the hill from Central to lean over the railings and watch an altercation between a car driver and the rest of humanity on Wellington Street.  The driver, a burly Westerner who looks like he must be called Lou, is one of those people who thoughtfully trundle glossy black tanks around the narrow lanes and has decided to stop his Toyota Panzer near a parked car, holding up the traffic behind him. 

If he drives forward a couple of yards, he would at least clear a way for everyone else, but he will have none of it.  Fearful perhaps of provoking an outbreak of Irritable Gwailo Syndrome, bystanders keep their distance, taxi drivers resort to surprisingly little horn-honking, and the only one of their passengers to remonstrate with the cause of their 20-minute delay beats a hasty retreat.  What appear to be a wife and two offspring can be seen through the smoked glass of the offending vehicle, stoically looking straight ahead past the onlookers.

An ambulance on an emergency call pulls up to the far end of the static line of vehicles, but Lou is unperturbed.  Minutes later, a paramedic on a motorbike squeezes through, while the ambulance crew bring a stretcher down.  While Lou shows one of them the left passenger door of his hulking conveyance, a distressed but hardly mutilated woman appears (apparently from the nearby noodle place) and is laid out on the stretcher. 

By this time, the police have arrived.  One of them marks the position of the family runabout with red chalk, and Lou graciously moves out of the way and allows the rest of the city to continue about its business.  Although what exactly occurred between the woman and the four-by-four is a mystery, it becomes clear that the police are not going to shoot Lou, and the throng melts away.
Mon, 7 Apr
Standard’s ‘Mary Ma’ editorial warns of a great threat looming over the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.  Shareholder activist David Webb is endorsing outsider Bob Bunker and incumbent Bill Kwok in the forthcoming election for two seats on the exchange board.  Should the two win, it would increase the influence on the board of the Webb ‘bloc’, the other two elements of which being Webb himself and policy wonk/ex-legislator Christine Loh. 

What the four have in common is a broad inclination to demand better corporate governance and protection of the interests of minority shareholders.  That is to say, nine of the 13 members of the Hong Kong bourse’s board have other priorities.  Some might favour small, seedy, grubby stockbrokers with their long traditions of ripping off investors in myriad ways, while others lean towards the interests of the majority owner-managers of listed companies.  No fewer than six are appointed by the Government, which has been building up its stake in the exchange apparently in pursuit of its own agenda – active guidance of the exchange’s strategy in order to bring ever more glory upon the Big Lychee as an international financial centre, and upon its officials as towering bureaucrat-genius-visionaries who know better than God, market forces and oh-so superior smart-asses with English boarding school accents.  Specifically, our leaders have a barely disguised obsession with the idea of merging the Hong Kong market with that of the Mainland, regardless of the fact that the latter is on another planet, lacking a free capital market and much else.

In what way does the Webb Clique pose a danger?  Mindful of the fact that this is a Monday morning, ‘Mary Ma’ spells it out in lines a five-year-old can read between…
Government officials are conscious that it would be in the interests of Hong Kong to protect the bourse as a principal engine of its growth, an important part of our financial infrastructure and a key agent in the continued development of the territory as an international financial center. Needless to say, the exchange is bound to have a central role to play when both the metropolis and the mainland move to integrate in the financial arena in the future...

There is no doubt that a bourse vulnerable to overseas influence is the last thing the government wants to see even though it maintains that whatever it does regarding the upcoming election will comply with normal procedures.
A conspiracy theorist would claim that it is Beijing that does not want to see Westerners (or the virtual version like Loh) increasing their influence by taking another thirteenth of the stock exchange board.  But it is hard to imagine the black hair-dye brigade in Zhongnanhai bickering about that when they have Tibetan suicide bombers, Olympic torches, simmering rebellion in Xinjiang and the usual fireworks factories/coal mines/Internet dissident mayhem to worry about.  All the evidence is that the Central People’s Government finds Hong Kong officials’ constant yapping about such integration tiresome.  Don't we all?

The horror of people who dare to contradict Donald Tsang Thought barging into one of Hong Kong’s elite policymaking enclaves surely lies closer to home.  Most such bodies are carefully assembled to exclude anyone who might disrupt proceedings with critical thinking, let alone humiliate our power-holders by publicly having a clue.  If it takes the cloning of several dozen copies of Ronald Arculli, so be it.  And when such undesirables are, well, foreign…  Burma – where the regime
plans to bar people from office for being the widow of an alien – shows us the way forward to a future of eugenic hygiene and racial purity in our securities trading infrastructure.  Except it involves constitutional reform, so even that’s out.
Tue, 8 Apr
A newspaper cutting from the weekend brings to mind an email several weeks ago that asked me, as an alleged member of the digerati, to list my favourite gadgets for an article in the
South China Morning Post Sunday magazine.  The request came from David Wilson, and my initial impulse was to give him a long-overdue piece of my mind about his shameless hand-wringing and public consultation-fixing back in the late 1980s when he was Governor of Hong Kong.  Then it occurred to me that if fate has reduced him to freelance writing I should go easy on him. 

The problem is that the last thing I do is
evangelize, connect people and adapt quickly.  When I leave home I rejoice in not having a device that enables thousands of people worldwide to interrupt me with long-winded descriptions of their current activities.  I also enjoy not blanking out the world around me by listening to eight gigabytes of music or immersing myself in Edison Chen’s entire photo collection.  I have also noticed that what you don’t own you can’t leave in a taxi or have to worry about getting repaired.  And that people who have a Star Trek-style, black plastic communications device clamped on one ear, with a light blinking, look tragically stupid.  So I regaled Lord Wilson with details of my most essential kitchen artifacts, like the Bluetooth-compatible, GPS-enabled wireless olive spoon. 

He wanted to know my occupation.  It was a toss-up, and ‘chiropodist’ lost.  Then he said he wanted a large-format picture.  He didn’t say of whom, and digital images of Bobby Kennedy and similarly worthy late heroes look too dated, so I emailed him the saddest, most geeky (without stretching the boundaries of credibility) looking mugshot Google Images could muster in a minute.  And David wanted a name.  Would he, I wondered, notice an anagram of his own?  It seems not.

Actually, a fork does fine.
Wed, 9 Apr
What a difference a month – or maybe a monk – makes.  Just weeks ago, the glorious motherland was on a roll.  Top officials had won the hearts of the nation, first by personally digging out millions of snowbound rail travelers during Chinese New Year, then by keeping their work reports to the National People’s Congress below four hours in length.  Beijing was putting the finishing touches to ugly, multi-billion, nest-, egg- and box-shaped stadiums, concert halls and airport terminals designed by deranged barbarian architects, thus proving itself a trendy and hip world-class city.  The countdown to the country’s coming-out party in August was reaching a crescendo as the exciting Olympic flame started its high-profile relay around the world.

In dozens of countries, crowds of people would line the streets to witness the Olympic Torch’s magnificent Journey of Harmony.  Foreign leaders and press would fall to their knees at the sight of the Air China jet carrying the symbol of international friendship touching down on their territory.  Presidents and kings would jostle for the right to humbly accept the burning baseball bat from Chinese diplomats.  From London to Paris to San Francisco, screaming schoolgirls would fling their panties into the path of the flame’s ruggedly handsome Chinese escorts in their fetching blue and white tracksuits and macho dark glasses.  Surveying the scene, intellectuals and leaders throughout the Western world would declare – “Thank heavens China, with its seven millennia of civilization and deep wisdom, is here to rule the globe in the 21st Century, since we have made such a mess of things with our inferior values, and I think I’ll have my three-year-old daughter educated entirely in Mandarin.”
But, alas, it was not to be.  Somewhere in the Himalayas, someone pushed, and someone shoved back, and next thing a modest-sized but apparently heartfelt anti-Han pogrom was underway in Lhasa.  Foreigners were kicked out, the doors and curtains closed and no-one really knows what has happened since, apart from some strange banging noises – possibly patriotic education.  Faced with a choice between mouth-frothing communists spraying venom in their faces and gentle Tibetan clerics with friends in Hollywood, the Western media have swiftly drawn their own conclusions, thus hurting the feelings of the Chinese people and prompting an even greater frenzy of vitriol-spitting by the black hair-dye brigade in Zhongnanhai.

In the streets of the West,
a very small number of ‘Tibet independence’ secessionists and a handful of so-called human rights-minded NGO activists now try to sabotage the Olympic flame relay.  The torch guards are said to be members of the People’s Armed Police.  Critics denounce them as sinister, creepy-looking thugs, but the keepers of the flame say that’s just a PAP smear.  Meanwhile, here in Hong Kong, the announcement that no new multiple entry visas for the Mainland are to be issued until October has led to conflicting rumours.  Some say that existing permits are being downgraded to single-visit status at the border, others that it is all a misunderstanding, or a computer glitch, or something.  It has all the hallmarks of one of those weird things that happen when there’s a power struggle in the Politburo, and the hardliners are up on the table berating the reformists for mollycoddling barbarians intent on toppling the Party and returning the Sons of the Yellow Emperor to the colonial yoke. 

So it hasn’t exactly worked out.  Next time, maybe.
Thurs, 10 Apr
Oasis, the semi-budget airline founded by the Rev Dr Raymond Lee,
collapses under the weight of financing and fuel costs presumably well above the forecasts in the business plan.  Lee made his millions in property investment, and was possibly beguiled into imagining that our air transport industry provided more or less comparably easy pickings.  It can do.  The carrier needs to be so entrenched that Government officials think they are serving Hong Kong by giving its profitability higher priority than consumers’ interests, and it should have a couple of Chinese state bodies as minority shareholders as a little reminder.  This is why I own shares in Swire, owner of Cathay Pacific.  It is not unprecedented for CX to absorb a failed rival, but in this case there is nothing to acquire.

That great and ancient hong’s other main interest is property development.  Even more than aviation, this is a business that can yield major profit in Hong Kong if you do it right.  You need to inherit – or actually have started up, if you’re a real go-getter – a large-scale buyer of land.  You need to arrange with your peers to take it in turns to win Government land auctions and coordinate the release of developments onto the market.  It is essential that the Government magnifies your pricing power by keeping land supply artificially tight.  It also helps to have a population that thinks it is normal and indeed worthwhile working for 20 years to pay off a mortgage on a 400-square foot apartment.  And it doesn’t hurt to have opposition politicians too self-indulgent and economically illiterate to question any of this.

The owners of Swires keep a very low profile and only emerge occasionally to stroll around a remote corner of England in search of trout.  But their Chinese counterparts enjoy receiving medals and the widespread admiration of the Hong Kong public for accumulating such plentiful billions through such little effort.  Only in the Big Lychee are people lauded for making high profits through monopolies and cartels supplying essential goods like homes and power.  In a capitalist economy they’d be in prison.  As the Tourism Board says, wonders never cease.

Fri, 11 Apr
Breakfast at the Foreign Correspondents Club with delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip, who is every bit as impressed and amused by the Great Alvin Siddow Escapade as I expected.  After perusing the
SCMP magazine for a few moments she glances up at me with her mouth slightly open, her upper lip curled a bit at one end and her nose just noticeably turned up.  She shakes her head slightly and mutters a barely audible “So childish.”  I am honoured.  It is the Class 2(a) Withering Sneer, taught to all senior civil servants early in their careers for use when faced with something too trivial for important people to bother with – as opposed to the slightly more menacing 2(b), which is employed when gwailo columnists and trendy think-tanks offer policy proposals.
I put it to her that the other people mentioned in the SCMP magazine article are, in their own ways, just as pitiful.  “That must be really useful,” I point out, “being able to go anywhere in the world with 10 gigabytes of emails from the last four years to look through.  Hours of fun!  You’d never want to do anything else.  Or the guy whose Atom supports Bluetooth headsets so he can listen to music during workouts.”  I can just imagine him walking through Central in a suit clutching something from Starbucks.  In fact, all these people sound suspiciously like stereotypes.  Maybe the whole article was a parody.
I ask Winky whether she and her hard-working colleagues have been doing anything interesting lately with all the money I send them every year on pain of being imprisoned.  “Guess which Government advisory committee is the most multi-racial,” she replies.

An interesting question.  Something to do with discrimination?  No.  Language education?  No, but a bit closer.  The Board for Suggesting Ways to Make Hong Kong Into a World City by Solving Air, Traffic, Planning and Other Problems Our Officials are Too Stupid to Work Out for Themselves?  This gets a no-nonsense 2(b), plus a short burst of gamma rays. 

She shows me a list.  Anglos, Tamils, Thais, Chinese.  Urdu, Japanese, Putonghua, Nepali.  Nothing, but nothing, crude, suggestive or offensive to anyone on Earth will slip through the massed ranks of
Personalized Licence Plate Censors

“As for how we’re spending your money – have you tried the exciting Olympic Torch Relay game?  Tibetan free! 
Your tax dollars at work.”
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